Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Armory Show

As I walked down 55th Street toward the West Side Highway and Pier 94 where this year's Armory Show is being held, I passed a traffic jam of yellow cabs, black limos, and a white stretch Hummer. We were all going to see some art, but not all of us were going to buy some.

The Armory Show started in 1994 as a much smaller art fair with 30 galleries exhibiting in the Gramercy Park Hotel. In 1999 it moved to the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington and 26th, the site of the celebrated 1913 Armory Show, an event that is said to have introduced America to modern art. It included Van Goghs, Picassos, Matisses -- 1,300 works in all. Sharing this location once is the only connection the current annual Armory Show has to the 1913 show. In 2000 the show moved to the Jacob Javits Convention Center with 90 galleries showing, and in 2001 it grew to 170 galleries and moved again to Piers 88 and 90 on the West Side. This year it occupies one pier and shrank to the manageable size of 148 galleries.

The contemporary Armory Show consists mostly of contemporary art. Other shows, like the much bigger 300-gallery Art Basel in Switzerland, or its American spin-off, Art Basel Miami Beach (also bigger; 200 galleries), will exhibit some Twentieth-century modern art by recognizable names. The Armory show will typically display pieces by working artists who may have had to scramble to make something new that they didn't show at Art Basel Miami in December.

A single artist may have pieces in more than one gallery at the show. I saw Thomas Hirschhorn's brown packing tape sculptures (like the packing tape cave he had at the Walker in Minneapolis last December) at two galleries.

The galleries were from all over the world. I saw galleries from Germany (lots of them), Sweden, South Korea, Israel, Japan, Scotland, India, Mexico, and the Netherlands. Even Romania and Turkey. The show's first African exhibitor, the Michael Stevenson Gallery, came from Cape Town, South Africa. Absent were any from Russia or South America.

The Crowd

At 2pm there were rows of Disney World-length lines of people waiting to get in. Fortunately, I got in at 11 with a MoMA group, and got to enjoy a relatively open floor until noon when the fair opened to the public. Some of the early arrivals included lap dogs and double-wide strollers, which made the aisles seem a little more crowded than they actually were.

This led me to a new theory of rich people, of which there are two kinds: Liberals, who have no idea how much space they take up, who are totally oblivious to the fact that their cackling brat is about to knock over a pedestal or try to eat part of a sculpture. And then the Conservatives, who are very aware of their dominance of the immediate area, who glare at you unapologetically when you get wound up in their Welsh Corgi's leash.

I wasn't sure at first if photography was allowed -- at the Outsider Art Fair in January, gallerists let me use my camera only after I assured them I wasn't a fellow art dealer gathering intelligence on my competition. No one raised a fuss here. It seemed too big, too frenzied and commercial to control the cameras at the Armory Show.

I was impressed how many visitors were, like me, taking notes. When Cereal Art's sales director, Deborah Mangel, saw me scribbling feverishly in front of her counter, she smiled and handed me a stapled price list with thumbnail photos. Not everyone was so friendly, but no one was rude. They just won't always engage you unless you approach them.

That's because not all of us are their to buy. As Lowell Pettit, an art advisor who led a small tour of the floor noted, the show is an excellent place to see contemporary art before it's snatched up by private collectors, art from all over the world, and artist's pieces that normally wouldn't be in one place until that artist had a retrospective. In short, many of us were there to use the show as a museum.

The Art

After reading about the infamous $160,000 pack of smokes on a string that passed for art at Art Basel Miami, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of art at the Armory Show. Unlike the art at the irksome Whitney Biennial, I found very little irrelevant and embarrassing art at the Armory Show.

Sure, there were some low points. There was the occasional pile of refuse (literally) or the creepy tableau with mannequins and a yodeling soundtrack (seriously). Lothar Hempel's giant photo of a 1977 Iggy Pop album cover seemed just an attempt to capitalize on someone else's work, or a last minute effort to put something in the show. And Christian Dior fashion designer Hedi Slimane's wall-sized photography looked like ... a Christian Dior ad.

Mostly, the art was beautiful, or at least engaging. I liked the tied-off trash bag carved out of black granite at Taxter & Spengemann (New York), probably by Lars Fisk -- the gallery coyly hid any attribution. I kept coming back to Michal Budny's small cardboard sculpture "Untitled from Origami (02)" at Cologne, Germany's Johnen/Schöttle. It's smooth, matte grey, and it looks like it could be sheet metal. It evoked both Alexander Calder's Stabiles and unfinished or abstract origami.

I was also impressed with Ellen Harvey's Invisible Self-Portraits at Galerie Gebr. Lehmann (Dresden, Germany). They are small paintings of a photographer reflected in a mirror, her face hidden behind the flash. Harvey once roamed New York City creating small oil paintings on public and private property, illegally, graffiti-style, calling it the "New York Beautification Project."

And I really liked the exploded moose antlers by Michael Joo (Anton Kern Gallery, New York).

Uta Barth's three photographs of a pair of flower vases, which get progressively abstracted, stood out for me. Her work was at Stockholm, Sweden's Andréhn-Schiptjenko.



The Galleries

One prominently-located gallery booth, that of David Zwirner, was virtually full of noteworthy art, including some photographs of projects by the late Gordon Matta-Clark, whose retrospective is now at the Whitney Museum. Matta-Clark was famous for cutting up buildings in the 70s. In 1975 he cut a giant cone shaped hole out of a building in Paris, intersecting walls and floors. In 1974 he cut a New Jersey house in half down the middle.

The Zwirner gallery also showed some R. Crumb drawings, which I noticed were rendered in "ink and corrective fluid" -- maybe a first for art.

I was puzzled by the attention the James Cohan Gallery was getting -- the booth was consistently mobbed with people. Maybe it was because photos of Folkert de Jong's hideous statues appeared in the New York Times.

The Prices

I saw an older gentleman asking a gallerist about a huge, blank-looking canvas. "One hundred and twenty thousand dollars," the gallerist said loudly. Sounded like a good deal. The gentleman looked incredulous.

Most art didn't have prices attached. Show-goers either had to flip through price lists or ask.

True, although it's impossible to get out of the show with an original work for less than some thousands of dollars, one can leave with a multiple for about $35. Philadelphia's Cereal Art is an organization that helps artists create and distribute works, usually sculptural, in large editions. They feature a quote by the artist Joseph Beuys on all of their promotional material: "The idea of multiples is the distribution of ideas".

With these multiples, the fact that the art is produced in large quantities is part of the art, not a mere attempt to sell more stuff. Although it is that, too; like printmaking, producing objects in large editions is a more democratic version of art.

Allan McCollum's THANKS, for example, are 3-and-3/4-inch-long tablets with the word "thanks" carved into them. These resin-cast objects, part of McCollum's Visible Markers series, are sold in packs of five for $35. They are intended as a physical manifestation of an exchange. And they are the cheapest art in the show.

Is It Art, Or ... Something Else?

After seeing some scary mannequins, it amused me to look at some of my fellow art enthusiasts, only to wonder if they weren't part of a gallery display. Sometimes you had to look twice.

And more than once I stopped at a space between galleries, wondering if I was looking at, say, a vacuum cleaner some janitor had stowed, or a piece of art. After Duchamp's 1917 Fountain, it's a fair question. One can feel like I often do in clothing stores: am I in the men's section or the women's section? I don't want to embarrass myself publicly, but I'm just not sure what I'm looking at.

True, the definition of art can be stretched to mean "a way of looking at things," but no one wants to be bamboozled. Often we want our art to do something for us -- to have a message or a meaning. As a modest and amateur collector, I find I look for art that will simply look nice on my wall, something that I can get pleasure out of looking at again and again. If I want to call attention to a vacuum cleaner's place in modern culture, or its very vacuum cleaner-ness, I would do better displaying my own in a prominent way than buying one from an artist who exhibited his that way.

In that case, the artiness is created by the mode of display, not the magic touch the artist lends by thinking up the idea to display it. For this reason, I have a very hard time accepting idea-based art as commodities. Still, I wondered as I looked at the vacuum at the Armory Show, would anyone there sell it to me? Who would I have to ask? Would the janitorial staff hasten to tell me that it wasn't art, or would they smile and quote me an exorbitant figure?

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